My post today is yet another quote from C.S. Lewis. But, I am not posting it to show an instance of truth but one of misunderstanding. Lewis was much smarter than I can ever hope to be but his understanding of confession misses the mark.
So why point out this misunderstanding of confession? Primarily, it is to correct any misunderstandings that a Catholic may have about the Sacrament of Penance. (And hopefully to explain why confession is necessary to a non-Catholic.) But also my purpose is to give a more balanced view of Lewis. What I mean is that most of the quotes I post from him could have come from a Catholic saint – but Lewis was not Catholic and he should be treated as such. There is a danger inherent in accepting what someone says as the Truth just because you happen to like the person. And if we accept as true what Lewis has to say about confession then it would be very dangerous indeed.
I think our* official view of confession can be seen in the form for the Visitation of the Sick where it says “Then shall the sick person be moved (i.e., advised, prompted) to make a . . . Confession . . . if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.” That is, where Rome makes Confession compulsory for all, we make it permissible for any: not “generally necessary” but profitable. We do not doubt that there can be forgiveness without it. But, as your own experience shows, many people do not feel forgiven, i.e., do not effectively “believe in the forgiveness of sins,” without it. The quite enormous advantage of coming really to believe in forgiveness is well worth the horrors (I agree, they are horrors) of a first confession.
Also, there is the gain in self-knowledge: most of [us] have never really faced the facts about ourselves until we uttered them aloud in plain words, calling a spade a spade. I certainly feel I have profited enormously by the practice. At the same time I think we are quite right not to make it generally obligatory, which wd. force it on some who are not ready for it and might do harm.
From a letter by C.S. Lewis
* – By “our” he means the Anglican view of confession.
So what is the dangerous part in this letter? It is the fact that Lewis thinks of the ‘Roman’ way of confession as merely obligatory, which according to canon law it is, when he should have first understood confession as necessary, which he did not as evidenced by his saying that confession is “not ‘generally necessary’ but profitable.” But, the reason that confession is obligatory for a Catholic is because it is necessary for our salvation. (At least it is necessary for those of us who have committed a mortal sin, which I think would include almost every person, if not every person, that has ever reached the age of reason.)
Here is a basic summary of why confession is in fact necessary: after baptism incorporates us into the life of God – the life of grace – (which was lost to mankind through the sin of Adam and Eve) we can, and do, still sin. Some of those sins are venial and some are mortal. And if a sin is mortal then we once again loose that life of grace – that connection with God that was given to us through baptism. In a sense, therefore, we have crucified Christ in our own hearts by sinning deliberately against Him. What is to be done to be forgiven and return to the life of grace? The Anglicans, just as Catholics, believe that baptism can only be administered once and so if you break that connection with God that was given to you through baptism then how can you get it back? The answer seems quite clear, if of course you believe what Jesus said to His Apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) Jesus gave His Apostles (and their successors) this authority to forgive sins because He knew that we would continue to sin while we remain on this earth.
So, like I said at the beginning, for Lewis to sound so negative about the Catholic obligation to go to confession shows that he missed the mark. The Catholic Church makes it an obligation for her members to go to confession out of love for our eternal souls – because she knows that it is necessary after we have committed post-baptismal mortal sin. If only Lewis had understood that then perhaps he would have done the one thing that I regret he never did – become Catholic.